Suzhou is situated on the banks of the mighty Yangtze River and is a city of canals. Also dubbed the ‘Venice of the East’ although we’ve travelled through several alternate Venices by now (St Petersburg, Bangkok, …) and none of them are even close to having the same atmosphere as the real thing.
Suzhou is famous for its classical Chinese gardens, nine of which have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Unlike the imperial parks of the Forbidden City and Summer Palace in Beijing, these were private gardens, built by wealthy men and intellectuals and designed to recreate natural landscapes in miniature.
The Humble Administrator’s Garden
The Humble Administrator’s Garden originally dates from the early 16th century and is the largest of the remaining gardens in Suzhou. At first we though it wasn’t actually so big but it’s full of twisting paths and little buildings so that you can actually get lost. It is cleverly designed so that beautiful vistas open up across the garden at various spots, some even use the technique of ‘borrowing’ scenery, something that we also saw in Japanese gardens. Here, for example, looking across to the North Temple Pagoda:
Like many of the buildings in this and the other gardens, the name comes from Chinese literature. The garden was first laid out by Wang Xianchen when he retired from public life as an imperial envoy and poet. He was inspired by a quote from an essay titled ‘Staying at Home Idle’:
To cultivate my garden and sell my vegetable crop…is the policy of a humble man
After Wang died, his eldest son lost the garden to pay gambling debts and it was split and changed hands several times in the following centuries before being reconsolidated by the government in 1949.
I’m sure it would be a wonderful place to relax on a quiet day but when we visited it was absolutely overrun with tour groups. Chinese tour groups are like an extreme version of a normal tour group;
- they have a kind of herd mentality that makes them lose any peripheral vision and just keep walking in a straight line regardless of whether their way is blocked by another person
- they are obsessed with taking photos of each other, usually to the exclusion of whatever ‘view’ they’re standing in front of and frequently draped over a wall or statue
- many walk around with their cameraphones in front of their face snapping everything but looking at nothing
- the guides are equipped with a microphone to project the information as far as possible, not the most peaceful in a compact garden with dozens of them competing for attention
At the far end of the garden is a space given over to hundreds of bonsai trees. This section wasn’t quite as packed as the other areas of the garden and we enjoyed seeing the variety of different trees which had been miniaturised, and some of them had some forming wires in place to shape their branches.
Having learnt our lesson from the day before we were determined to get to the Master-of-Nets Garden as early as we could to minimise the crowds. The garden opened at 7.30am but with a one hour walk from our hotel the best we could manage was 8am. It paid off, we weren’t the only ones there but it was a much nicer and more enjoyable experience.
In the centre of the garden is a pond surrounded by the living quarters of the former residence which are linked by courtyards and covered walkways.
For a city with some major tourist attractions, Suzhou is remarkably lacking in signage (in either Chinese or English). We stumbled across the entrance to Canglang Pavilion when we got lost on our way to the Master-of-Nets Garden and, as it was close by, we returned on our way back to the hotel. It is the oldest of the existing gardens in Suzhou dating from 1044. The name can be translated as Great Wave or Surging Wave Pavilion.
Our favourite of the gardens that we visited was the Master-of-Nets Garden for its clever layout and rock gardens. I’d really like to visit Suzhou again in other seasons, I think the gardens would feel quite different and that the most memorable views would be transformed by a covering of snow or brightly coloured autumn leaves.